I remember driving a bird mad once. I don’t know why I’m telling you this; I suppose I feel a small sense of guilt. A mockingbird, in its exuberance, had determined itself to mimic the music that played out of my phone, through the car window and into the sandy street. I was listening to an electronic track called “Plunge” while I waited in G.’s car. He had run back to his room to retrieve something he had forgotten, something I, too, now forget—was it his amp cord or his bum bag? Or perhaps, his baseball cap with the monogrammed coconut trees? Yes, it was quite hot that day. We had just smoked a joint, in that heat, in his room while we sipped ice-cold orange Nutri-C; we were faded. For this reason, G. is dubious of my story. He thinks I must have imagined it.
So, then. You be the judge of the story, its reality or unreality. The mockingbird is perched on one of those power lines in Ajibode. It hears mischievous noises, the alien soundscape of a song. The non-verbal clues of lurking dangers, pure thrills. Trilling lasers slice through the air, through the clapping beats and the repetition of a simple melody made dark and ominous. Existential. And the bird tries to sing along. By the song’s end, it goes on making a single broken cry, a sort of pitiful screeching, over and over, that breaks my heart as much as it amazes me. When the mockingbird flies away, it appears unsteady, confused in its jerking through the afternoon sky. As if it were struggling to make sense of this song’s dialect, its longing.
“Plunge,” a track by the Swedish artist, Fever Ray, from her album of the same title, is a five-and-a-half-minute odyssey into the shape of desire. Not as a feeling, I think, but as a cognitive experience. It’s simple and intuitive at first, with no words or vocals. But as one listens further, one finds this map of desire to be full of dead-ends and detours, tricky slopes, many circles. The melody is pitch-shifted into various poses, into delicate depths and heights of terror. And the synths—at times shrill and cruel, but always exciting—develop a sadistic tone. The song gives a sense of being consumed by a napalm fire, sudden and slow. Or of plunging into frigid water. Those sensations must be very similar. Why do I imagine they must?
I have read that it is not uncommon in situations of prolonged loneliness, to imagine a sense of familiarity with the thoughts of animals in one’s surroundings. I—we—project these thoughts as a way of not feeling like we have to process all this, alone.
In writing about the mockingbird, I realize what Fever Ray did to that poor creature. It was as though she said, I know you think of yourself as an animal, but look here, look at this. This is what it feels like to desire, to want. The drumming noise in your head, the distorted pitches. She set a napalm fire on its head.
Or perhaps I am anthropomorphizing again.
I first heard Fever Ray on my nineteenth birthday. I spent the day with my friend, Visar, a fellow Taurean. He played the Plunge album from his phone as we walked down what was possibly the most idyllic street on campus—Wadie Martins Road, with its canopy of trees alive with the tweeting of birds, its ornamental shrubs, and its view of the small man-made lake known as Awba Dam. We had just shared a joint of Arizona; we were laughing a lot and trying to take it all in, these short lives of ours. When he played the opening track, a chill crawled down my newly adult spine. I felt as if I had seen a ghost.
Possibly, this was because I did have a ghost in my life at the time. I had spent the month leading up to that birthday in Lagos, where I had sought out a sort of gay community, the likes of which I had never, until that point, found in Nigeria. Through that month, I waded my way into hookup culture. I met many guys who wanted to buy me drinks, take me to karaoke, take me to bed. I felt it was a thrilling time after an awful semester. I fell in love once or twice. I fell down a delirious rabbit hole, where I met my ghost.
As I write, I am not listening to the Plunge album. It can get to be a little much for me, like jolts of electricity. It possesses me.
The last time I saw my ghost, we met up at a fancy hotel in Ikoyi after many months of not seeing each other. I was in town for a poetry festival; he stopped by to say hello. That meeting was a very adult affair, cinematic in its composition. There was little talk about the past heartbreak, his ring I’d flung into that black lake. We spoke instead of his newborn niece, his work, my writing. We smoked weed out of his ceramic pipe (it was embossed with skulls) and he showed me a new tattoo on his left calf. Shortly after, we gave in to our desire and became a tangle of long limbs and begging—to stay the night, to touch the other some more, to perhaps slow down a little or otherwise blur the lines of self completely. I remember he chose to play a song that went, over an excitable dance beat by Calvin Harris, “I make no promises, I can’t do golden rings / But I’ll give you everything / (Tonight).”
I am reminded now of an interview on the art of poetry in the Paris Review, with Anne Carson, in which she mentions “the man with the secret self. The unreachable self.” Since my ghosting, many of my poems have been about this man. More often he stands at the doors to the poems. His fist is raised but he never knocks.
“I wanna love you, but you’re not making it easy.” These are the first words on Plunge, preceded by an ominous rattling of bells, the haunting notes at the start of the opening track, “Wanna Sip.” The song goes on to swell into a manic intensity, a frenzy complete with drill alarms and an unsteady bass. At some point it sounds like an air raid—I have made it my alarm tone, actually, so my waking is more motivated these days—this song about desire, about tensions. “I wanna love you, but it’s not easy.”
I expressed a similar plea to my ghost, in the week prior to the first ghosting. We had been texting—we loved over the Internet; in fact I could count all of our physical interactions on one hand—when I told him I’d noticed that he didn’t want to talk to me anymore. Did he want me to fuck off and leave him alone? No, he said, he didn’t want me to leave, it was just that he didn’t know what to say to me. I said I would listen to anything at all, anything he said. It strikes me as pathetic now; I have never cared so desperately about what anyone has to say. I often find talks boring or exhausting. I must have said it because I was in love.
Perhaps then, that explains it: the scandalizing terror that first sprang in me, listening to “Wanna Sip.” We were drinking beers at Spices, Visar and I, a few minutes after he played me the song, when I suffered a small fit of delusional panic. Suddenly sure I was about to be kidnapped (on this, my nineteenth birthday), I called G. to come pick us up, please. It was not something I could explain. I just felt, subconsciously and world-shatteringly, that I had been too closely seen.
My ghost and I kind of just stopped talking, and though it pained me very deeply, I understood that this was love and sometimes it did not work out. I asked him to send me a voice-note, because I had not heard his voice in the many weeks since I had left Lagos. The note he sent me was quite lovely; I felt it was the sort of thing that could be sampled in some sad song about the end of love. But after that, there was a second ghosting, which was the real ghosting, after which he became transmuted into the entity now known as my ghost, an entity that came wearing love’s newer and truer face: cruelty, ugliness. Madness.
“Wanna do it, if we do it, it’s my way. / ’Cause how you do it when you do it, it’s not okay.” This power play—the pulling between will and want, a familiar tussle—is primordial. Lilithian.
In the video for “Wanna Sip” there is a witch and a bald-headed slave who makes them dinner, who sets the table, lights the candles, etcetera, while the witch looks bored with her foot on the table. Eventually, the slave loses it and thrashes the spread, making obscene gestures at the witch, mouth-feeding her a blood-red, jelly-like delicacy by force. The witch is coerced to dance; it quickly becomes a fight. The video ends with the slave standing over the body of the witch, which is splayed across the dark wood dining table. Fever Ray has said that Plunge was strongly influenced by BDSM and kink culture. In other promotional materials, she wears makeup that makes the edges of her mouth and eyes look bruised; she wears a ball-gag shaped as a hamburger.
For more than a year, I misheard one lyric on “Wanna Sip” as “Something big, I need an opening / I wanna come inside,” and it brought me great pleasure to sing this line out loud (how deliciously confessional it was, how delightfully perverse!). But I learned, researching for this essay, that Fever Ray actually sings something a little different: “Something vague, a little opening…”
My ghost was very handsome, very tall, and had a disproportionately sized penis. I don’t know, it just seemed like it belonged to a much smaller man. But I didn’t mind that; I barely considered it at all. I had gotten very drunk and ended up in bed with the gorgeous stranger. I felt shock and embarrassment, but also extreme joy, curiosity; lust. However little, I needed an opening.
Once, I leaned down to kiss him—I was on top of him, straddling him so we were face to face—and he pulled away. My countenance fell, my heart rose to my throat. Then he lifted my face in his hands—those beautiful, burned hands—and blessed me with the grace of his mouth.
In “The Glass Essay,” Anne Carson writes of “anger dreams” which occupy her nights “after loss of love.” The landscape of the mind becomes savaged after heartbreak; its ruins reverberate with howling. “I am interested in anger. / I clamber along to find the source.”
When we met, I was in the middle of a hypomanic episode—I had a roster of half a dozen guys I was sleeping with, had recently shaved my head, was making decisions at such a frequency that there was little time for consideration. Even our one-night stand, the excessive drinking and outrageous flirtation that led up to it—this was all outside of my character. I often describe my hypomania to new people in this way: it’s mostly just racing thoughts, insomnia, scatteredness. I don’t sell my house or believe I’m God. Now, I have little faith in this second statement. I think it unfortunate that when I loved my ghost, I was not at all my real self. I worry the love itself is indicted in that scatteredness.
Another of Plunge’s standouts is the song “This Country.” It is carried by an insistent bass, a naughty undeniable beat that paints in my mind a picture of myself in the dark depths of a dance club somewhere in Europe. I am grinding on a stranger, the dim warmth of the room is thick with possibility. It is punctuated, irregularly, by strobe lights (green, I imagine). The song opens: “Tell me something sexy, and I’ll log off my whatever / Gag me, awake my fighting spirit.”
I have often been accused of being a “white” boy, largely because I listen to a lot of “white” music. This accusation is ridiculous to me for many reasons: I have never crossed the borders of my continent or country; I am, in actuality, not a boy at all; etcetera. And what is this “white” music, in an age of the Internet and globalization, where I have access to every kind of music, each new favorite being a single click away? I may not have a real answer to this, but I surely am grateful for the cultural diffusion that allows me to find visceral connections in an electronic album made in Sweden. “& what is a country but the drawing of a line,” writes the poet Safia Elhillo. These lines, I doubt they are as fine and distinct as they used to be. They have been compromised by the virtual, by the future.
Much of my friendship with Visar is based on our shared love of music—electronic, ambient, alternative, indie, rock. Once, I made an accusation of my own: I told him he did not have a straight guy’s taste in music. No, he told me; he definitely is straight. But he wouldn’t be, he said, if he lived in a different country.
My favorite part of “This Country” comes towards the end of the song, when Fever Ray builds up to an agitated chant. “This house makes it hard to fuck! / This house makes it hard to fuck! / This country makes it hard to fuck! / This country makes it hard to fuck! / This country makes it hard to fuck!” More than once I jumped up on the couch singing these lines, pretending to be a true rockstar. In the face of real helplessness, the catharsis could almost be taken for joy.
Because my country does make it hard to fuck, with its stringent anti-queer legislation, its institutional wars against queer bodies, its enslavement to the colonial import of Abrahamic religions. And yet, there is my long list of trysts: the threesome with the couple in Lagos (I adored one and loathed the other, at least erotically, but went with it anyhow); the computer engineering student who wanted me tied up and left my body bruised with hickeys, as a kind of romantic gesture (inconvenient, annoying even, but I allowed it); the chain-smoker who once, after the act, pulled out of me to find blood on his condom (he was ugly and a cheapskate, he fucked me with increasing aggression when he learned that I would not love him, even though he did not love me either, and never would); and more, and more. With my ghost, the sex was quiet and not very exciting. At daybreak, we tiptoed out of the house so his sister would not find out he’d had me over. Over and over this way. Like Fever Ray sings, “every time we fuck, we win.”
But I am dubious of this notion, that fucking has made winners of us. I do not feel like a winner. Granted, this may also have to do with my ghost—in his aftermath I spiraled into a quest to understand desire, to master it, in a way. I read many theories (literary, psychological, cultural, critical) and my takeaway was this: desire is a teasing of our intrinsic void. To obey it is to answer yes yes yes to the calling of a void within us. Which is not at all my idea of what it is to win.
“I need someone but I mustn’t hurry,” Fever Ray sings in “Mustn’t Hurry,” a dazzling track that contrasts its title with the way it conjures the future. Full of the rising and falling of foreboding notes, the song prompts sci-fi imagery: spacecrafts and flying cars, cyborg stripteases, sex with a clone of oneself. Or perhaps I am merely a chronic fantasizer. Often I imagine a future in which my ghost returns to me, his apology and promises in hand like roses. Sometimes I turn him away; I cannot forgive his dishonor of my love. Other times, and in more frequently conjured futures, my arms are open to his romantic return—I absolve him entirely. But I cannot will this into reality, into being. I lack such a power. I write with confidence of a “future” when I am clearly trapped in that pose we call the past.
In her “Short Talk on Walking Backwards,” Anne Carson writes of the dead, who walk backwards: “They are victims of love, many of them.” Excepting the utter misery of it, I am taken with this idea, of being victimized by love.
“Babies pushing boundaries / babies pushing boundaries.” At times I fear this was his perception of me. In his adoration of the unsaid, his safe distance from affection, my longing for explicit reciprocity must have been construed as a pushing of boundaries. This embarrasses me to no end. I am unsure if I now write about him because I miss him, or out of spite.
After he ghosted me, I ghosted many guys, every other man who was interested in me. I did not want to be their piece of meat, their pretty thing to win. I wanted no one if it would not be him (and this was, again, pathetic, even laughable). If I had a void that called so loudly, I would not fill it with anyone else. Rather, I would enter it myself, and disappear.
Because maybe I do have a problem with desire. Or more precisely, of desire. Maybe the problem is not with these men who tease the hole in my soul—G., the ghost, the chain-smoker, etcetera—but with the hole itself, or the soul itself, compromised. If I resent my ghost, it is because of this: I am made to wonder, to ask: what is it in me that must be mastered?
“Mustn’t Hurry” ends with Fever Ray repeating the lines: “My own family / Got my babies / My own family / Something to stick in.” Her debut album, eponymously titled, explored domestic life and motherhood, honed with the ruminative gloom of postpartum depression. Plunge, released eight years after, is more excited and excitable, it vibrates with erotic conflict. With her kinky power play and her ball-gags, with her desire to “run [her] fingers up your pussy,” Fever Ray has become—or perhaps has always been—a “sodomitical mother,” in the words of feminist critic Susan Fraiman. The themes of queer love and family-making are indelibly intertwined in this album. On another track Fever Ray sings of “A chosen family / To love, to trust.”
But blood, also, traces its path through Plunge’s spirit. It makes a country out of the longing. “Blood was our favorite paint,” she sings on “Red Trails,” another standout track, a beautiful dirge for the end of a painful love. The violinist Sara Parkman carries the song atop a conspicuously uncomplicated beat, eventually building her string crescendo almost to the point of collapse. “You were my favorite pain. Waiting for your love to happen is like waiting for a drug that never kicks in.”
On the question of escapism, what is there to say? Not much but that it is a way of synthesizing detachment. A method of avoiding unbearable pain, of pretending the organs are entirely absent and the pain’s instigator does not exist.
The second ghosting was not as ceremonial as I have made it out to be. He called me after maybe three months of radio silence. I said I only had five minutes to talk and what did he want, I was busy. We talked for over two hours; he missed me and wondered where the time had gone. He hoped there were no new boys in my life he had “to fight off.” There was no one, I said, and he told me he would not let time fall down between us again like a wine glass. This, after I was far into my process of moving on from him, picking out the shards. But he called me back. While he spoke—he tends to speak in a way I think of as a confident rambling, and I, once again, would listen to anything he said to me—I found myself fishing that old ring of his out of the box where it was stowed; slipping it onto my thumb and admiring it, tilting my hand this way and that, affirming his endless sweet words. What a sparkling night it was. He never called me after that.
Ten days later, I had unraveled to less than nothing. After questioning myself—I could not call him for that same fear of pushing boundaries—about what I had done or said wrong, I resorted to a wretched coping mechanism I had been trying to quit. I took a razor to my arm. I was ungentle with myself and wept afterwards. Then I put on a long-sleeved sweatshirt and walked to Awba Dam, that little lake not far from my room. It was silver in the sunlight when I flung his ring into it. Nothing he did hurt me as much as this single action of my own. It splintered something in me; he transcended in my mind, became a living ghost that haunts, that follows everywhere but refuses to speak.
In “Red Trails,” Fever Ray sings, “Touching and there’s no one there / Playing love and kissing air.” I imagine this must be what it’s like to simultaneously mourn and desire a ghost. At times I do this, I must confess—I conjure him, or a version of him that meant those things he said on that phone call. I call out to my void before it calls to me. I kiss that air which takes the shape of him.
I have stated how I loved him, but not when I knew. It was deep night in late March. He had just dropped me off at my sister’s house after a date. He was driving all the way back to Lekki, on the island, with his terrible headlights and his battery too low. His phone had died on the way. When it started to rain—a loud and heavy downpour; it was monsoon season—I tried to reach him but couldn’t. I couldn’t find out if he had gotten home safe, if he was okay. And I don’t know why, but that was when I knew I loved him. A time when he was unreachable, and I was very anxious and hoping to hear from him. It hurts me now to listen to the clamor of rain upon a hollow roof. It hurts me even more than these songs about leaving and being left, even more than the song of that desolate and maddened bird, so long ago.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.